- Two Traditions of Liberalism
The central theme of João Carlos Espada’s thoughtful and lively new book is the gulf between the Anglo-American and the Continental European understandings of liberty. In his telling, the Anglo-American tradition views liberty as pluralistic, adaptive, reformist in a piecemeal manner, and without a comprehensive and fully coherent rational design. Continental European doctrines of political liberty, by contrast, tend to be dogmatically rationalistic, comprehensive, and even utopian, and in consequence liable to promote revolutions that in actual practice end up producing the very opposite of liberty.
As befits its understanding of the Anglo-American tradition, this book itself is a complicated and multifarious artifact—not simply theoretical or practical, but aimed at understanding theoretical issues with a view to encouraging the most beneficial practices; neither a simply personal account nor a purely objective analysis; directed to academics on the one hand, but perhaps still more to citizens and statesmen. It offers an engaging account of the author’s initial discovery and subsequent in-depth inquiry into the distinctiveness of the Anglo-American tradition of political liberty and the reasons for its success in promoting its citizens’ well-being.
The book consists of five parts. The first, “Personal Influences,” discusses five contemporary thinkers with whom Espada has had personal contact. He begins with Karl Popper, who introduced him to the greatness of Winston Churchill and presented him with arguments in favor of [End Page 172] fallibilism and against dogmatism as bases for a free and open society. The others included in this section are Ralf Dahrendorf, Raymond Plant, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Irving Kristol. Two quotes from Himmelfarb express insights that run throughout the rest of the book: “The true ‘miracle of modern England’ (Halévy’s famous expression) is not that she has been spared revolution, but that she has assimilated so many revolutions – industrial, economic, social, political, cultural—without recourse to Revolution.” And soon after: “The British and American Enlightenments [in contrast to the French Enlightenment] were latitudinarian, compatible with a large spectrum of belief and disbelief. … And for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy.” (pp. 53–54).
Part II, “Cold Warriors,” presents another five twentieth-century thinkers: Raymond Aron, with special emphasis on his famous critique of Marxism in The Opium of the Intellectuals; Friedrich Hayek, the defender of the “spontaneous order” produced by market economies; Isaiah Berlin, whose pluralism, Espada contends, can provide support for liberty without sliding into relativism; Michael Oakeshott, the great expounder of the “conservative disposition”; and Leo Strauss, who underlined late modernity’s tendency toward a relativism that calls into question liberal democracy (and everything else distinctive of Western civilization), and argued instead for an approach to politics grounded in the ancients’ understanding of practical wisdom.
In Part III, “Orderly Liberty,” Espada analyzes the contributions of three classic exponents of political liberty: Edmund Burke, James Madison (presented in sharp contrast with Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and Alexis de Tocqueville. These three chapters provide eloquent and forceful statements of the understanding of liberty found in these great authors and the appropriate political modes of attaining it.
From the standpoint of giving practical advice, the contrast of Madison with Rousseau may be helpful for encouraging limited government, but a certain misunderstanding of Rousseau is in evidence here. He is said to aim at total governmental control: “Rousseau … imagined that, as the people became the sovereign, their own government should be absolute.” (p. 114). Yet while Rousseau argued that the individual citizen does not need securities against the sovereign (a whole of which the citizen is a part), he also distinguished the sovereign from the government. The sovereign cannot be limited, but it can act as sovereign only through the general will, which must be general in its object as well as in its source. That is, the sovereign can act only by making general, impersonal laws (in the strict sense in which Hayek speaks of laws as distinguished from decrees of various sorts). For Rousseau, it must be the government that acts in...